Article By

Katleen de Stobbeleir
Katleen de Stobbeleir
Katleen De Stobbeleir, is a full professor of leadership at Vlerick Business School. At Vlerick, Katleen heads the ‘Centre for Excellence in Leading Adaptive Organizations’. Her work covers the full spectrum of leadership, including: authenticity, the future of work, the growth mindset, psychological safety, hybrid leadership, responsible and inclusive leader transitions and building a feedback climate.

You cannot predict what the future will bring but you can prepare for the challenges ahead. The past two years have made that evident, as organizations in early 2020 found themselves having to pivot and explore new ways of working with almost no warning. Preparing for the challenges ahead is a task leaders need to ensure gets done despite the continual noises and pressures of daily activity. This leadership should not just come from the top, but leadership that helps to connect the dots throughout an entire organization; leadership that confidently embraces the complexities of today’s reality and converts uncertainty and disruption into opportunities for personal and organizational growth.  

As we exist in an ever more complex and intricately connected world of increasing uncertainty, leadership in organizations must be prepared to respond appropriately and effectively.  

Organizations must develop new strategies and forms of leadership to move from hierarchical leadership structures to a more vertical, cooperative leadership approach.  

This leadership should not just come from the top, but leadership that helps to connect the dots throughout an entire organization

This is where the concept of ‘collective leadership’ can be beneficial. So, how can collective leadership help you and your organization build the leadership capabilities today that you will need in the future, and how can this leadership approach be effectively broached within organizations?  

Although leadership development starts with a focus on the individual, leadership development should ultimately transform the entire organization, enabling them to operate within a collective leadership approach.  

Collective leadership is not the role of any one leader, but the interaction of team members to lead the team by sharing leadership responsibilities. It is not the characteristic of an individual person, but the collaboration of an entire team, group, or organization. As a social process, it is aimed at accomplishing collective rather than individual goals and requires collaborative, coordinated action. True collective leadership occurs when several capable people with complementary strengths and competencies, focused on a compelling purpose and vision, work together to provide direction within a company to contribute to their success.  

If you think of an organization like a tower, the stronger, more experienced individuals within a team should be placed at the bottom, to provide a strong based for the structure. This gives a solid foundation for serving the rest of the organization. However, the opposite usually occurs, with the stronger members solely placing themselves at the top of the organization which suppresses and exploits the newer, less experienced members.  

Impactful leadership development journeys should enhance the mindset as well as the skillsets and toolsets your leaders employ to truly become their best selves. After all, organizations can only truly flourish when individuals within the company grow. However, it is then about cultivating a collective culture within the organization where individual growth and organizational growth go hand-in-hand.  

At Vlerick Business School, we noticed that many leadership development programs focus solely on individual leadership skills, imparting knowledge onto students and clients about how to become a better leader—how to improve their interaction style, how to give good feedback, and all the basics needed to become a better individual leader.  

However, through our work with organizations, it is apparent that strengthening individuals alone is not enough. Leadership development programs often fail when you train an individual and then send them back to their organization, where they revert to old behaviour patterns and dynamics, which may not have been very effective or adaptable for our ever-changing world.  

Developing the system and culture  

Organizations need to not just develop individuals as leaders, but also develop a collective group of leaders and have them think about how they can support each other, adapt their organization’s culture when necessary, and what collective actions they can take to create a collaborative work culture.  

Organizations need to not just develop individuals as leaders, but also develop a collective group of
leaders and have them think about how they can support each other

However, there is something influential within a workplace culture that means, whenever we return to that organizational environment or system, it can be hard to practically apply what we have learnt on a leadership development program. This is why we need to pay explicit attention to developing the system and the culture within the organization, not just individuals.  

This is where collective leadership can be employed as a way to teach skills as a collective, and teach more skills about how to change culture and get the best out of other managers, while collaborating with other departments. This starts with making values and culture explicit within your organization, understanding them in depth. For example, we run a leadership simulation where participants have to develop a new strategy for a fictional company which is facing difficulties. They start from scratch and decide how to build a project in this new company.  

What we typically find is that participants end-up recreating the culture of the company they are already working for, despite having the opportunity to start a project from scratch. We then work with them to identify the strengths of that culture, but also the challenges. Imagine a company that is very good at processes; they might not pay attention to employee emotions or how people are feeling, because they are strongly attached to process. We then have participants reflect on how to bring more emotions to the organization while staying true to the DNA of the culture.  

When we work with students or clients, it is about helping them create a roadmap for change, and help them understand that they will go back to their own environment and systemic influences. Just as we help build a roadmap for change, we also give them a roadmap for how to change workplace culture.  

Influence and gradual deviation not instant impact  

After learning about collective leadership and taking this concept back to your organization, your manager or workplace leader may claim “this won’t work here.” One of the pitfalls for those that return to their workplace with a concept such as collective leadership, is that they go back with direct ideas and want to have an immediate impact; it is really more about influencing colleagues and stakeholders, rather than preaching collective leadership.  

When trying to enact change in a workplace, it is most effective to influence the culture through your own behaviours and make others aware of strengths and weaknesses of the system. This involves providing individuals with the skills to influence managers, stakeholders, and peers, to get them all on-board with a collective leadership approach.  

Influencing involves the trained individual being explicitly aware of the existing culture and conforming enough to then gradually deviate. You need to be aware of the current workplace processes and sensitivities, and then prioritize what you want to change within the process and how you want to influence stakeholders. Start with familiarizing yourself on their strategy and what works for them—if you don’t understand how and why they work, you can’t influence them to work differently.  

This requires a lot of empathy—but not the type typically addressed in leadership development. To really change the system, it requires empathy with peers and managers, and making it psychologically safe for them to change their leadership approach.  

When we talk about psychological safety, we often talk about employees feeling comfortable to speak-up on an issue or idea they have. However, with senior managers, it is their role to stand by and support current processes and workplace culture. If someone comes in to an organization wanting to make a change, such as implementing collective leadership, the managers response will be to protect current processes and existing habits—as that is often part of their job. When you come from leadership development training, you also need to make it psychologically safe for stakeholders to start making changes and thinking about how you can make it safe for them to make change. A lot of this involves selling upwards to senior managers and stakeholders, and sideways to peers and colleagues.  

A lot of leadership development programs are good at creating individual awareness and contextual awareness about what is going on in the outside world. What is needed to really apply this knowledge in an organization is to have organizational intelligence—understanding how the organization really works, who makes decisions within the company, what does the culture look like, and then linking and connecting these dots.  

When trying to implement collective leadership within an organization, you need to alter the workplace culture in a way that does not disrupt what already exists. What often happens is people come back from training and are seen as disruptive and disrespectful towards the organization’s history and culture. This leads to a paradox where you need to respect past accomplishments while still enacting change.  

Incorporating collective leadership provides benefits that enable an organization to become more adaptive to the external environment. That is something we see many companies doing today as they experience turbulence and huge challenges for which they need to make strategic changes, in response to factors such as climate change and digitalization. A collaborative and collective approach to leadership can ensure organizations cope more flexibly with trends in the external world.  

However, what we often observe is that current workplace cultures can be preventing them from making that change. Therefore, the key is to find a bridge between what already exists and where the company needs to go to ensure you stay adaptive to external factors in a way that does not completely paralyse the organization.  

Collaborative approach  

As well as members within a team collaborating and sharing leadership responsibilities, collective leadership can also involve being more collaborative between teams and departments.  

Instead of one department seeing an issue they are facing and trying to fix it within their own team, if there is a collective leadership approach, all departments and managers can work together. This brings together different thoughts and ideas for solving problems that might not have been addressed with individual leadership. A lot of the challenges companies face are so big they need cross-silo collaboration. One individual leader alone cannot effectively solve all the problems their organization will face; it requires a collaboration of leaders. This can even be done across different organizations, not just within organizations.  

You can’t make a change if you are only aware of your formal organization; you also need to be aware of the invisible parts.

If you want to make a change in the leadership approach of you organization, you need to understand your organization’s current structure. On paper, you have the formal organization, outlining the hierarchy of roles. But in reality, there is an informal organization; the invisible part and the true power dynamics of who really makes the decisions, despite the formal hierarchy. At Vlerick, we want to help leaders make a difference and make a change, and you can’t make a change if you are only aware of your formal organization; you also need to be aware of the invisible parts.  

When it comes to companies and working with clients, we tend to say that we will not only focus on the individual; we want the impact of our programs to be felt throughout the organization and have a ripple effect. We do not believe you can do that by only transforming the individual. Of course, strengthen the individual, but also make them aware of collective dynamics and give them the skills to influence them.  

Coaching for collective change  

A good example is that in many leadership development programs, people receive coaching. Often, this is individual coaching where you sit with a coach and think about personal development—we don’t really do this. We hold small group coaching session with four or five peers, where we help them work on an individual development plan but also discuss topics of the day and what it says about their work culture and where can they help each other to make a collective impact.  

We help them think about their own values, but also reflect on their organization’s history and how they fit in, how they might be stopping the organization from growing, how the workplace culture is stopping them from developing. Ensuring you understand the hierarchy and culture of your workplace is how you can best move forward in implementing a newer, collective leadership approach through influence, and reap the benefits.

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